Memory and Oblivion in the Spanish Diaspora (2)
It wasn’t until I began scanning the old crumbling panoramic photograph that I started to become suspicious. The image is spectacular: a large crowd of Spanish immigrants poses for a picture at some kind of picnic. The owner of the photo and several of the Spaniards I’ve been interviewing in Monterey told me that the event depicted in the image was a fundraiser for the Republic and that it had been held in Toro Park, between Monterey and Salinas. That helps explain the raised clenched fists of several people in the photograph.
But the upper right corner of the photograph –the very place were the photographer would have inscribed a description of the event–was missing. Only the words “picnic” and “by” are legible. As I carefully handled the document which was much too large for my flat bed scanner, I began to wonder if that missing corner might have been torn away, perhaps even deliberately. In other places the photograph had become brittle and cracked; but this imperfection looked different. In any case, I felt that I needed to know what the text might have said in that missing part of the picture. And I wondered if I was not letting the role of “history detective” get the best of me.
With the help of three of my informants, I was able to track down a woman who lives in Marina, a few towns over from Monterey, who owns a copy of the same picture. I spoke to her on the phone and learned that some years ago she had her family’s copy of the large panoramic print restored and framed as a gift to her father, who appears as a young boy in the photograph. She confirmed to me that there was indeed writing in the upper right hand corner of the photo. Even though this is my last day out in California and I have a million things to do, I asked if I could go to her house to see the picture in person. She graciously agreed to receive me. My curiosity had been piqued. Off to Marina.
Once I arrived, I quickly confirmed that the two photographs were the same, and was able to read the words inscribed in the upper right hand corner of this restored version of the original print: “Picnic to benefit the widows and orphans of Spanish Civil War, by Acción Demoócrata Española de Monterey, May 23, 1937.”
Now I’ll never know if those words had been deliberately removed from the copy of the image I had been handling today, but it is certainly tempting to imagine that they were, and to then try to speculate as to where, when, why and to whom such an inscription might have seemed inconvenient or inopportune. Be that as it may, what is beyond doubt, I think, is that without the coordinates provided by the description, the image can more easily be decontextualized, and reduced to a quaint anthology of “faces of our forebears”; without the inscription, in other words, the photo can be more readily inscribed into the a-political realm of “family heritage.” But the date, the name of a collective organization (Acción Demócrata Española de Monterey), and, above all, the reference to war, widows and orphans in the excised description would, it seems to me, be a real obstacle to the kind of privatization and depoliticization that often takes place when, in US culture at least, a photograph is placed into a family album. On several occasions during this trip to California I have had the strong feeling that this kind of “domestication” of memory –this amputation of historical context, the reduction of a complex fresco of collective action into individual, disconnected and private portraits of individuals — is an important part of the story I am trying to piece together and understand.
But in the end, these are all just late night musings inspired by a missing corner of a picture. Chances are the photo just got torn accidentally. I’ll probably never know for sure. And besides, I’ve got a plane to catch in the morning.